1 Kings 19:9–18 (NIV)✞: The LORD Appears to Elijah
We’ve been looking at a long story that goes across 1 Kings 17—19 (NIV)✞, and so far have seen the following:
- In Chapter 17 Elijah predicted the drought, then went outside of Israel to stay with a widow and her son
- In 18:1–15 Elijah returned to Israel, intent upon informing Ahab that the drought was about to come to an end (though a man named Obadiah was afraid to pass the message on to Ahab, so high were the stakes)
- In 18:16–46 Elijah faced off against the prophets of Baal, in a dramatic display we all love to read
- In the last passage Elijah fled from the wrath of Jezebel, though it seems that hunger and exhaustion also played into his state of mind.
When we left him in the last passage he’d been fed and led to a particular cave where he spent the night, so he’s had another night’s rest.
Now the LORD appears and asks him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (verse 9 (NIV)✞). So Elijah answers Him:
10 He replied, “I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”
It isn’t actually true, there are other prophets that Obadiah hid at the very least, but this is a good view of Elijah’s state of mind. God doesn’t address his complaint, however; instead, He tells Elijah to go stand in a particular place, and He will pass by so that Elijah can see Him. What happens next is a pretty famous passage:
Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.
It is at this point that I’m not sure if Elijah is just being stubborn, or if he’s really feeling he still has a complaint against God; having seen God—something few humans have ever had the privilege of doing—God asks him the exact same question, in the exact same words He used before: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (verse 13 (NIV)✞). And Elijah answers Him with the exact same words:
14 He replied, “I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”
In answer, God seems to ignore Elijah’s entire complaint!
15 The LORD said to him, “Go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram. 16 Also, anoint Jehu son of Nimshi king over Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to succeed you as prophet. 17 Jehu will put to death any who escape the sword of Hazael, and Elisha will put to death any who escape the sword of Jehu. 18 Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel—all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and whose mouths have not kissed him.”
As I say, I’m really not sure how valid Elijah’s complaint is. (I was about to say “whining” instead of “complaint,” but that might be too extreme.) It’s made more complicated by the fact that God doesn’t ever appear to address Elijah’s complaint (other than the fact that there really are other prophets, Elijah isn’t the only one).
So it seems like the complaint isn’t worth addressing, and yet, as mentioned above, Elijah is one of the few humans in the history of the world who’s seen God, and yet, even after seeing Him, he doesn’t give up on his complaint at all.
So I don’t know how to view this. Interestingly, the ESV Study Bible views Elijah negatively here:
1 Kings 19:13–14 What are you doing here, Elijah? The point of the demonstration on the mountain was presumably that Elijah would answer this question differently on the second occasion of its asking (cf. v. 9). His answer is, however, exactly the same as before (I have been very jealous for the LORD; cf. vv. 10, 14); the entire point of the demonstration seems to have passed him by. There is in fact a suggestion in the text that he does not particularly wish to understand what God is saying through these events. He has always claimed to “stand before the LORD” (Hb. ‘amad lipne YHWH; 17:1; 18:15); but here on Mount Horeb, in spite of the command of 19:11 (“Go out and stand … before the LORD,” Hb. ‘amad lipne YHWH), he apparently stays in the cave until the storm is over and he hears the “whisper” (v. 12). When he does go out, it is with his cloak over his face, which makes it difficult for him to “see.”
ESV Study Bible
I had never thought to interpret the cloak over his face as a bad thing; I’d always assumed this was because he was meeting God, and needed to cover his face!
Regardless, as mentioned, God doesn’t actually address Elijah’s complaint. Instead, He gives him a series of instructions; no “thanks for all of the support,” no, “Yes, I hear, you, but,” no anything other than, “here is what I want you to do next.”
Except… maybe that’s not true. Part of the instruction given to Elijah is to anoint Elisha to succeed him. So perhaps God is letting Elijah “retire” after all…
In fact, let me quote the ESV Study Bible again:
1 Kings 19:15–18 Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus. These words indicate the real point of the “low whisper” (v. 12). God gives Elijah new instructions: whereas he has run south in despair to the desert of Beersheba, he must now return to the very north of Syria-Palestine in obedience and anoint Hazael, Jehu, and Elisha. A new political and religious order is to succeed the old, and this order will bring about the final victory over Baal worship. Total victory will come as a result of an ordinary political process (a “whisper”), as God removes certain kings and sets up others; it will not come only as a result of obviously spectacular demonstrations of divine power (wind, earthquake, and fire) as at Carmel (18:20–40). And it will arrive not as a result of Elijah’s efforts but as a result of the efforts of others. Elijah’s role is now to prepare the way for these “others,” who are only a few of many servants of God who have not bowed to Baal or kissed him. God has ways of working other than the spectacular (though he is always free to work in supernatural ways).
ESV Study Bible